Other Steam Men
The Mechanical Man
The Electric Man
The World of Frank Reade
Left to right: Mickey McSquille, "Baldy" Bicknell (a.k.a. the Huge Hunter),
Ethan Hopkins, Johnny Brainerd, Steam Man.

When Professor Campion unveiled Boilerplate in 1893, the concept of a mechanical man was not a new one. Edward S. Ellis, in 1868, wrote about a prodigy that constructed a nonsentient automaton called the Steam Man. At the time, it was considered to be nothing more than an elaborate novelty item, like Boilerplate. Stories of its feats were relegated to the tabloids and "Edisonades." In the account entitled Steam Man of the Prairies (the first of several such publications), Johnny Brainerd, a teenage dwarf, invented "a man that shall go by steam." Here is how it was described:

"It was about ten feet in height, measuring to the top of the 'stove-pipe hat,' which was fashioned after the common order of felt coverings, with a broad brim, all painted a shiny black. The face was made of iron, painted a black color, with a pair of fearful eyes, and a tremendous grinning mouth. A whistle-like contrivance was made to answer for the nose. The steam chest proper and boiler, were where the chest in a human being is generally supposed to be, extending also into a large knapsack arrangement over the shoulders and back. A pair of arms, like projections, held the shafts, and the broad flat feet were covered with sharp spikes, as though he were the monarch of baseball players. The legs were quite long, and the step was natural, except when running, at which time, the bolt uprightness in the figure showed differed from a human being.

"In the knapsack were the valves, buy which the steam or water was examined. In front was a painted imitation of a vest, in which a door opened to receive the fuel, which, together with the water, was carried in the wagon, a pipe running along the shaft and connecting with the boiler.

"The lines which the driver held controlled the course of the steam man; thus, by pulling the strap on the right, a deflection was caused which turned it in that direction, and the same acted on the other side. A small rod, which ran along the right shaft, let out or shut off the steam, as was desired, while a cord, running along the left, controlled the whistle at the nose.

"The legs of this extraordinary mechanism were fully a yard apart, so as to avoid the danger of its upsetting, and at the same time, there was given more room for the play of the delicate machinery within. Long, sharp, spike-like projections adorned the soles of the immense foot, so that there was little danger of its slipping, while the length of the legs showed that, under favorable circumstances, the steam man must be capable of very great speed."

The Steam Man's first published account appeared in Irwin's American Novels #45 in 1868. Above is a retitled 1882 edition, which misled some into thinking the Steam Man was also called the Huge Hunter. The nickname actually belonged to Baldy Bicknell, a hunter who befriended Johnny Brainerd.

After the origin of the Steam Man was reprinted several times, new stories were demanded by the public. The above cover from 1876 depicts the first of three sequels written by Harry Enton, in which the famous inventor Frank Reade builds an updated version of the Steam Man.
When Johnny Brainerd retired, the adventurer/inventor family the Reades picked up where the young genius left off. Frank Reade Sr. produced the Steam Man Mark II and his son Frank Jr. followed with the Steam Man Mark III.

Visit with the Reade family of inventors/explorers, who constructed their own Steam Men and other remarkable inventions .

"The Steam Man of the Prairies"
was written by Edward Sylvester Ellis.
Ellis was born April 11, 1840 in Geneva, Ohio.
He began his professional life as a school principal and later became school superintendent in Trenton, New Jersey. In 1860, he published his most successful book, "Seth Jones," which was subtitled "Captives of the Frontier." Its huge success caused him to abandon teaching in order to pursue his writing career.
Although his most serious piece was a biography of Thomas Jefferson, which stood as the definitive work on the subject for decades, Ellis specialized in adventure stories and histories aimed at younger readers.
He was a major author during the era of the "dime novel." Because Ellis wrote under dozens of pseudonyms, as well as under his own name, it is nearly impossible to know exactly how many books he penned.
Ellis claimed to be a nephew of renowned Western frontiersman James Capen ("Grizzly") Adams, and in this guise he published a series of adventure novels. One of his most popular and groundbreaking characters in these books was Deerfoot, a native American who was among the earliest "minority" heroes in U.S. fiction.
Edward Ellis died at Cliff Island, Maine in 1916 at the age of 76.

To fully apreciate Edward Ellis' contribution,
here is an historical context:

1818 Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
1827 Joseph Atterly, A Voyage to the Moon
1863 Jules Verne, A Journey to the Center of the Earth
1868 Edward S. Ellis, The Steam Man of the Prairies
1870 Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
1895 H.G. Wells, The Time Machine
1920 Karel Capek, R.U.R. (first use of the word "robot")

Ellis' The Steam Man of the Prairies is not only one of the very first American science-fiction novels, but the first example in literature of a mechanical man. Why isn't it better known?

The Steam Men
Steam Man Mark II
Steam Man Mark III
Victorian Airships
1885 Electric Man
1893 Mechanical Man
1900 Automatic Man
Victorian Robots
The World of Frank Reade
Copyright 2000, 2011 Paul Guinan